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Balloon gives kids an inside look at geography

Stefan Knutson of Earth Adventure Programs conducts an interactive science and geography-based program Friday about the earth and its terrain for a third-grade class at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- The first kids to see the Earth Balloon stood with their mouths gaping open.

"Oh, my gosh," one said. Others said, "Wow," or simply stared.

As they took in the 20-foot inflated globe Friday in the small gym at Kennedy Elementary School, one of the students asked, "Do we get to go in there?"

Instructor Stefan Knutson smiled and nodded.

"They are so excited for this," teacher Kris Lippert said as the students took off their shoes and rushed over to sit next to the globe.

Knutson explained to them that the Earth Balloon was printed with actual satellite pictures of the earth, making it an accurate model of the earth, at a scale of 30 miles to an inch.

The class started outside the globe, with students sitting on the floor looking up at South America. Knutson used a green laser pointer to show them the Amazon rain forest and the path of the Amazon River.

He ticked off some statistics for the rain forest -- 2.5 million different kinds of insects, 1 in every 5 birds on earth. In an area of the globe covered by his green dot of light, he said, 150 types of animals and 120 kinds of butterflies would be found.

The students applauded when he talked about the abundant wildlife in the rain forest. Knutson later said that a round of applause for the Amazon butterflies was a first for him.

The outside of the globe gave Knutson an opportunity to explain how relatively thin the earth's atmosphere is. "An inch away, and you are in outer space," he said.

The students walked all the way around the globe and they sat on the floor to look at the Pacific Ocean, which covered nearly half the globe.

Then they got what they'd been waiting for. Knutson opened a zipper opening in the south Pacific and led the stocking-footed children into the globe. They sat on the floor on top of Antarctica and looked around, wide-eyed.

Knutson spent a little time talking about each continent, and received another round of applause when he pointed out Willmar's location.

Looking at the globe from the inside, Knutson talked about the oceans, too, and pointed out the ocean mountains and trenches visible in the satellite photos. He pointed to Hawaii and explained that a volcano is slowly building another island there, 3,000 feet below the surface.

"The earth is always moving, always changing," he said.

When he offered to answer questions, Knutson got a tough one first. "Does Santa live up there?" a girl asked as she pointed to the North Pole at the top of the globe. "Yes, he does," Knutson responded seriously.

Another girl asked about the Titanic. Knutson used his laser pointer to show them the path the ship was to follow and then focused on where it sank.

Afterward, the students were chattering in excitement as they left the gym.

The Earth Balloon was bigger than he thought it was going to be, said Matthew Bengtson, 9, and he enjoyed hearing about the different continents. "I didn't know there was all those little islands" in the Pacific, he said.

Maddie Evans, 8, said she was going to tell her parents what she had learned about the continents and the deep ocean trenches. "I knew the Nile was in Africa and the Amazon was in South America," she said, "but I didn't know that much about oceans."

The Earth Balloon is presented by Earth Adventure, a nonprofit organization located in Circle Pines. The balloon and the program's instructors travel to schools all across the country, Knutson said.

For more information on the Earth Balloon, go to

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340